Protect Me From What I Want


The school’s library was giving away some old material from the 70’s and 80’s. Books, old encyclopedias, and some arts magazines. I thought: “what the hell, they could be good collage material” and took some. Now, months later, I browsed one of the magazines from the mid-eighties. It was an old issue of Arts in America (December 1986), yet the cover seemed familiar. It was Jenny Holzer’s  Protect me from What I Want bright-light sign, in the middle of billboards and skyscrapers.

Her work ( addresses the public and private spaces, and how messages, language, and communication, when directed as straightforward as possible, can cause a reaction on people, in a public setting. Some of her work (Survival, for example, shown in the above image) seems to be an omnipresent voice, or a sort of Robin Good sharing wisdom in unsuspected places. This type of communication, where the recipient is no one and everyone, reminds me of the type of interventions done with the Socially Responsive Design mindset. It’s about creating situations and exploring how people relate to one another, responding to the context.

These messages that appear to come out of nowhere, yet talk directly to you came at a time where sharing private information on a public sphere was rare for the common folk. In these pre-internet days, the pervasiveness of brands made us just consumers, and recipients of all these various messages. However, when Holzer put up work, like posters, for instance, she did receive responses from people reading her messages:

“I would get amazing messages back, written right on the posters. People would check off the truisms they liked or hated and would sometimes explain why. I also eavesdropped to get feedback. I thought that for the posters to be effective they had to be anonymous. I wanted people to really wonder where they came from, or not even wonder and just take them at face value.”

I find it very interesting that these messages touch people in such a way, that they needed an outlet to respond: a platform to give feedback and show their disagreement or relief.

Getting this “neutral” voice out there and later on, Holzer’s own, makes me think about the proliferation of sharing technology. Jenny Holzer was addressing, in a way, how exposing our inner wishes and thoughts for everyone else to see creates tension on the public space, and how this also generates a feedback loop of responses written on the actual posters. Now, we voluntarily shift between the public and private, sharing details of our life to an unknown internet audience. Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Flickr, etc. are our platforms and we can post anything to anyone online.

If Holzer pioneered on creating installations where the issue of getting our innermost thoughts out there for everyone to see was the core, now that we have the media to do so, the question still remains: why share? who owns this communication? and what are the boundaries now of pubic and private data?

The awesome Kyle McDonald addressed just that, creating Keytweeter: a year long performance in which he made a custom application that published every 140 characters he typed into his laptop directly to Twitter (video here). Except his personal ID information, as well as credit card numbers and passwords (we are not that naive nowadays) everything he wrote, he posted. His Master thesis, code for clients, personal messages on chats, emails, playing games, pretty much everything one types during the course of a year.

He turned this Keytweeter account into an archive, and also into an exploration of the private in a very public space. During this experiment the difference between information and the control of information became clear to McDonald, and he realized that:

“Communication never belongs to an individual, and if there is any ownership at all, it’s distributed amongst all the parties involved”.

Holzer put her messages out first with posters and then moved on to light-signs (think Times Square or Vegas), and more recently, to projection mapping. Kyle McDonald used the mediums of our time: twitter and code to publish everything he typed. Both of them are questioning the authorship of messages (which turn out into data) the pervasiveness of sharing our information in the form of status updates, headers and signs. Yet the question remains the same: why are we sharing? and as McDonald says: when will the noise overpower the signal? I can’t help but wonder: is creating more and more bits of data in the form of blogs, tweets and statuses bringing us closer together? Is it generating meaning and understanding? Or is it the illusion of a feedback loop that in truth is a closed system, due to the lack of resonance and understanding?

When asked about what is her relationship with new technologies Jenny Holzer answered:

One, I use electronic signs because they work. They get the message out. Two, I use them because I think that they are an accurate reflection of the world in which we live, more than charcoal or some other traditional material. I’m not saying that they are better than another medium, but for me it seems interesting to use the stuff that’ll either save or destroy us.”

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